In what the Israeli media described as an extraordinary occurrence in the Jewish state, a “Christian” missionary was arrested last month after being caught distributing a religious pamphlet to a 6-year-old child in the coastal city of Ashdod.
What are the implications for local and visiting Christians and Messianic Jews?
This unusual, perhaps even unprecedented arrest went largely unreported. So Israel Today turned to Advocate Joshua Pex, an Israeli immigration lawyer, to find out whether or not missionary activity is legal in the Jewish state. In response, Pex penned the following article, in which he explains the implications regarding suspicion of missionary activity for those wishing to visit, or who might already be here in the Land. Missionary activity is a controversial subject in Israel, as popular media and public understanding abound with misinformation.
Israel is a Jewish and democratic state
Israel was founded in 1948, based on a United Nations resolution, in order to be the national home for the Jewish people. The Israeli Declaration of Independence, signed by David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, and the nation’s founding fathers, states the following:
“Israel will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
It is important to note that Israel does not have a constitution. However, a set of Basic Laws fulfill a similar role of guiding legislative efforts and judicial interpretations. In 1992, the Knesset passed the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, which declares Israel as a “Jewish and Democratic” State. The Israeli Supreme Court ruled that basic human rights–such as the right of freedom of religion and conscience, as well as freedom of speech and expression–are protected in Israel, since they are an inherent part of a person’s dignity as a human being.
Statistics – Israel is a Jewish state with large religious minorities
According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics report published in January 2017, Israel has 8.6 million inhabitants.
- 74.8% are registered in the Israeli population registry as Jewish;
- 20.76% are registered as Arab, mostly Muslim, but about 10% of the Arab Israeli population is Christian;
- 4.5% (384,400 Israelis) are listed as lacking a religion, as Non-Arab Christians, or as members of other religions.
Freedom of religion in Israel includes the right to spread one’s views freely
Israel is a Jewish and Democratic state, and as such its laws reflect both the Jewish Rabbinical traditions, as well as the obligation to international conventions and norms regarding human rights and freedoms. State agents such as the courts and law enforcement authorities maintain the right of freedom of expression and freedom of religion for minority groups in Israel.
For example, the Magistrate Court in the Ornan case (1987) ruled that:
“The spread of opinions by way of distribution of flyers to passersby in public places deserves special recognition and protection of the court since it’s not only the cheapest method to spread opinions, but also since it’s sometimes the only way of expression for the weaker parts of society and citizens from lower social economic classes, who are without means to the mass media…”
Limits to freedom of religion – what missionary activity is not allowed in Israel?
Questions regarding missionary activity in Israel usually arise in connection to Christian organizations, or Messianic Jewish groups, such as Jews for Jesus. The reason is that these believers often see evangelism to the Jewish people in Israel as a fundamental part of expressing their faith.
In Israel, it is legal to express one’s world view, including religious beliefs, even if they are not accepted by the majority of the public. The exception to this rule is what is known in Israel as the “Missionary Law.” The “law” is actually composed of two separate sections of the Israeli criminal code:
- Section 174 of the Penal Code – 1977 forbids a person to entice another to change his or her religion in exchange for material benefits.
- Section 368 of the Penal Code forbids persuading or encouraging a minor (under the age of 18) to change his or her religion. This law prohibits conducting any ceremony for a minor to change religion without the consent of both parents.
It’s important to note that there have been cases where the police stopped and detained people who were accused of illegal missionary activity in Israel, but no one has been charged or sentenced according to these laws. Thus, the authorities’ anti-missionary activity is largely in the form of border controls by the immigration authorities and through the Ministry of Interior’s limitations on aliyah for missionary activists or those suspected of being involved in missionary activity in Israel.
Refusal of entry to Israel due to suspected missionary activity
The Israeli border control immigration officers are authorized to approve or refuse entry to Israel for foreign visitors who wish to enter the country as tourists. The border control officials have a wide range of discretion when making the crucial decision to deny entry to a potential visitor. In July 2017, the Ministry of Interior published an updated list of reasons that may cause denial of entry to Israel. The common reasons are suspicion of illegal immigration or working without an Israeli work visa. Obviously, security concerns are also a valid reason for refusal of entry to Israel. However, it’s important to note that suspicion of missionary activity was also placed on this list for the first time in 2017.
Expulsion of tourists due to missionary activity
Visitors who enter Israel with a B-2 tourist visa usually receive approval to remain in the country for three months. However, in certain circumstances, even after entry to Israel, a tourist may find his or herself detained by immigration authorities. Following the detention, the visitor is brought before an immigration tribunal and handed an expulsion order. The immigration authority officials will then proceed to fly this person back to their country of origin as fast as possible.
It has happened in the past that tourists visiting Israel have been expelled due to allegations of missionary activity. These cases usually involve the tourist participating in a public missionary campaign with a high-profile organization. This activity may attract resistance from the local public and complaints to the police. Even though the allegations may be false, it is extremely difficult to stop the expulsion process once it starts.
Prohibition of Aliyah for those who engage in missionary activity
It should be emphasized that the Ministry of Interior is particularly suspicious of Christians and Messianic Jews in relation to aliyah (immigration) to Israel. It is therefore recommended to receive legal counsel prior to starting such a process. Regardless of the legally grey zone surrounding these issues, a person actively engaging in missionary activity in Israel will almost certainly be denied the right to immigrate. This is because Christian proselytizing is considered contrary to the purpose of the Law of Return.
In accordance with the Law of Return, any Jewish person (or descendant of a Jewish person up until the third generation) in entitled to obtain the status of an oleh (new immigrant) in Israel, so long as they did not convert to another religion. In general, the State of Israel considers Messianic Jews to be Christians, and therefore any Jew that joined the Messianic stream of Judaism to be a convert to Christianity. Thus, aliyah becomes very difficult for a Jew that converted to Christianity. That said, there is no legal prohibition against a person that is not Jewish according to Jewish Law (does not have a Jewish mother) making aliyah. This applies even if they are part of another religion, as long as they did not convert. This applies also to Messianic Jews whose mother converted to Christianity before they were born.
Advocate Joshua Pex is a partner in the law firm of Cohen, Decker, Pex & Brosh